Are Parents Passing On Bad Driving Habits to Their Children?

April 14, 2019


Road Safety


Ella Donald

It’s something that every parent should perhaps stop and consider whenever they’re behind the wheel with kids in the back seat; am I passing on my bad driving habits to my children?

Maybe you're prone to succumbing to road rage? Or perhaps you often make a 'harmless' U-turn at places you shouldn't? Whatever the case may be, according to the experts, not only are you putting yourself and others in danger when practicing bad driving habits, but you may also be teaching your kids these same unsafe habits, unconsciously.

What are some of these bad driving habits?

The driving behaviours that your kids may notice, and possibly later adopt, vary from holding the steering wheel improperly, to downright illegal behaviours, like failing to indicate, speeding up at yellow lights, or even drink-driving.

And if the statistics show us anything, it's that dangerous behaviours continue to be practiced on our roads by drivers, many of whom no doubt are displaying these said behaviours with their children watching from the back seats. In August 2018, driver deaths were up by 40% on the previous year, increasing concerns about factors such as mobile phone use, after two decades of steady decline, following the proliferation of speed cameras and random breath testing.

And it seems that driver distraction is the latest concern for road safety experts, and will continue to be.

“Without new measures such as lower speed limits, radical new safety technologies, and camera monitoring of mobile phone use, the death toll will once again start to rise, setting us back in our work towards 'Target Zero' to eliminate deaths and injuries from road crashes,” Bicycle Queensland CEO Anne Savage said.

“27 road fatalities were caused by driver distraction in 2017 and 75 per cent of Queensland drivers admit to using mobile phones while driving – this simply must be stopped.” — Anne Savage, CEO of Bicycle Queensland
Mother using phone while driving child
Experts say that driver distraction is the latest concern for road safety. Photo: iStock

How are kids mirroring them?

Research suggests that, like many behaviours from parents modelled by young children, bad driving habits can be learned by observation, from the earliest days in the back seat. In fact, some believe that 'learning to drive' starts at the age of five.

Research done by not-for-profit group Road Safety Education on behalf of The Sunday Telegraph found that four out of five teenagers had witnessed their parents break the law while driving, whether through texting, intoxication, or speed.

Brooke O’Donnell, general manager of education for Road Safety Education’s Ryda Program said that the results “tell(s) us that our kids are watching everything. Every wrong move a parent makes is internalised and ­undermines the positive messaging they’re trying to teach when it comes time for driving lessons.”

“Parents need to be conscious that young people start to learn to drive from the back seat from a very early age. It’s hard to undo years of negative role modelling at 16 years."

"How do you convince your teenager that it’s dangerous to use a mobile while driving if they’ve been watching you do it?” — Brooke O’Donnell from the Ryda Program of Road Safety Education

These bad lessons continue once children are behind the wheel, too. Research by NRMA found that of the 900 surveyed customers of their Free2Go youth program (available to 16-19 year olds), just under a third had been taught incorrect skills by their parent or supervising driver.

Most of the incorrect skills were associated with roundabouts, parallel parking, or blind spot head checks, however, it was also found that 37% of the surveyed young people had witnessed their supervising driver speeding, and a further 20% had seen a failure to indicate when turning or phone use.

Kid in child seat of car
Research shows that children are 'learning to drive' at the age of five. Photo: iStock

What can parents do?

As the above suggests, kids are prone to model the example of their parent's bad driving habits, but the good news is — the same can be said of the opposite.

Showcasing good driving habits, such as ensuring that you're paying attention, staying alert, and following the laws, from the moment your child first rides in the car, will increase the likelihood of your children following in these footsteps.

Additionally, when it comes to older children, experts also suggest a few other important actions.

“Parents are role models for their teen drivers and when the parent is the ‘rule breaker’ they are setting a bad example. I encourage parents and teens to set and agree upon boundaries together to help keep everyone safe on the road,” says Dr. Gene Beresin, Liberty Mutual consultant and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

It’s also important to let a child know when you’re making an effort to change your driving behaviours and why, while clearly outlining the necessity for making the change.

Furthermore, as there are new laws on the roads since you earned your license, and it’s likely you’ve forgotten some important behaviours over time, attending a driving school for a refresher course may also be an impactful action.

"A lot of experienced drivers forget about things like blind spot head checks after a while. It's been a long time since they've done any driver training themselves as they did their licenses 20 to 40 years ago," NRMA Safer Driving Instructor Mark Toole said.

"Parents have never really had to think about the skills they learned 40 years ago and now they have to teach their children. Things like parallel parking can be difficult to teach their kids." — Mark Toole, Safer Driving Instructor of NRMA

"It's invaluable for parents to brush up their skills to become aware of rules they might not have known about. The first step is to get some professional tuition.”

All of these suggestions are certainly worth considering, particularly when we're reminded that future motorists are starting to learn, all whilst still sitting in the back seat.

Ella Donald

Ella is a Brisbane based writer for Smith's Lawyers who has written for many noteworthy publications including Vanity Fair, CNN, GQ Middle East, The Guardian, Fairfax, and The Saturday Paper. She covers topics such as entertainment and arts, sport, fashion, food, social and cultural issues, health and beauty, technology, law and travel. She also teaches at the University of Queensland in the School of Communication and Arts.